The thing called Holly (after a long, tortuous stretch of indecision) had mustered the courage to open the door.
If Wodec had been there, he would have assured her that the door was one of the few things in all of reality that would remain constant, but she had no way of knowing this. All she knew was that her fear of what lay beyond had disappeared (it had taken over ten millenia) and there was nothing left to do but walk through the portal.
She laid her hand on the knob. She turned it clockwise.
The door snicked open, and sudden resolve poured through her being. Yes—she was meant to return and crush her enemies. She was a destroyer; she was born to rule and grind others beneath her heel.
The door stopped flashing.
For the ten thousand years she’d stood before it, its fickle surface had appeared as steel, water, sky…as a literal infinity of other permutations, but now it settled into a steely set of vertical bars.
It now looked like the entrance to a jail cell. There was no lock; it was simply a vertical set of iron bars. This triggered a vague sense of dread, but it was dim and weak. Holly swung the door open and stepped through.
The area inside was open and spacious. The sound of falling liquid soothed her ears; it came from a miniature waterfall in the righthand wall. Large clay tiles coated the floor. Paintings and plants were arranged throughout, and a warm light infused the air, courtesy of recessed lighting in the smooth white ceiling. Like a showpiece living room from HGTV.
Everything was coming back to her; she was Holly fucking Dent. A teen-queen cheerleader, destined to change the world through her will alone. She would gain entrance to an Ivy League school, become a CEO, transition into politics, and eventually attain the presidency, but it wouldn’t be to gain power, it would simply be a trophy. To show everyone who’d fucked with her she could do what she wanted, be who she wanted, and fuck anyone who didn’t agree because she was Holly Fucking De—
Her eyes focused on the center of the room. There were two wooden chairs facing across from each other, with a round-topped coffee table situated between them. On the rightmost chair was a white-haired man, dressed in elegant, fantasy-style clothing: a tasteful mix of flowing grays and muted whites. Like something made for one of those dorky-ass Elves from the Lord of the Rings movies. His right leg was folded over his left—a “smart man’s” sitting posture. Under other circumstances, Holly would have thought this effeminate and weak, but somehow, he still seemed masculine.
She could have sworn that a mere second ago, the table and chairs hadn’t been there. Confusion played through the depths of her mind. Was this guy fucking with her, or—
“Please,” he repeated. “Sit.” He extended a hand, palm up, toward the chair to his front.
She hesitated, then made her way toward the chair. She sat slowly, looking carefully around as if something might ambush her. Her guarded manner elicited a chuckle from the white-haired stranger.
“This isn’t a trap,” he said.
“How would I know?” she retorgted.
“You wouldn’t.” He shrugged. “This is an instance where you need to have faith.”
Holly snorted. “I have faith in myself, motherfucker.” Faith? Get the fuck out of here.
The stranger sighed. “I’m pretty sure I know what you’ll do, but I’m still obligated to give you a choice.”
“Yeah?” Holly became dimly aware of her body growing younger; she was no longer a withered old man; she was the dangerous barbarian-king she’d first inhabited. “Maybe I’m the one who gives you a choice.”
The stranger arched an eyebrow. “Which would be?”
“You choose whether or not you keep your limbs. Depends on whether you help me out.”
The stranger sighed again. This time it sounded a little sad. “Just what I expected.”
“You have something I want.” Holly gave him a menacing stare.
“That I do.” The stranger regarded her with a dispassionate gaze.
“Give it to me. Or I swear to Christ I’ll—”
The stranger laughed. “That’s the last person you should swear to; she’s on my side, Holly.
Holly scoffed. “ ‘She?’ Maybe you haven’t heard, but the greatest scammer in recorded history is packing meat between his l—”
He flapped his hand dismissively. “It’s She. I’m not going to explain; another story for another time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What’s your name?”
A puff of air blew through his nose—not quite a laugh, but almost.